Brooks, Defense Lead Fitchburg to Clutch Win Over Panthers
FITCHBURG -- Last year, the Fitchburg football team went down to Marlboro -- didn’t get stuck in traffic on the way down -- and even though FHS came out on the short side of the decision, its fortitude in the fourth quarter set the tone for the remainder of the season.
And if Friday night is any indication, that may be true again.
Behind a stellar 196-yard passing performance out of Andrew Brooks and some incredibly stout defense down the stretch, Fitchburg won its second in a row as the Red and Gray held off the late-arriving Panthers, 17-16, at historic Crocker Field.
The win lifts the Red Raiders to 2-3 on the season, and they will travel to Westboro next Friday night.
Marlboro -- which has only kept teams not from north of Route 117 out of the end zone this season; the Panthers arrived at the corner of Circle and Broad just before 6:30 p.m. due to traffic on Route 2 -- fell to 3-2.
Second-year FHS coach Tom DiGeronimo was proud of the fortitude of his team.
“I can’t say enough about them,” he said as the strains of the Alma Mater faded into the chill fall air over the North Nashua River. “Coming in 0-3 and winning last week, this was a huge win for us. A big win, and I’m so proud of our kids.
“It’s one week at a time for us, and our kids are finally believing they are a good football team. We’re getting better, and we have to build on this.”
Fitchburg held a 17-14 lead when the Panthers took over at their own 25 with 3:39 remaining in the ballgame. And while the tourists would grind in their traditional power set, with the running strength of Lou Vigeant (29 carries, 114 yards) helping to get Marlboro into the red zone, FHS’ defense came up aces on the final three defensive snaps.
Three Richie Webber passes (6 of 16, 107 yards, 1 TD) fell incomplete as FHS forced him into passing situations outside of the tackles.
“We wanted to get them to do things they don’t do: that’s throw the football,” DiGeronimo said. “We figured if we can take the run away and force them to throw, it helped us.”
Fitchburg would run four final plays, the last one watching Brooks, on fourth-and-11 from the 17 and with three seconds on the clock, run back into the end zone to account for the safety with three zeroes on the board.
While FHS came away with the win, DiGeronimo believed it shouldn’t have been that close had the offense converted inside the Panther 20. The Raiders made three additional trips into the red zone outside of two TD drives and a 26-yard Damien Saavedra field goal early in the fourth, and came away empty.
“You have to finish drives,” he said.
Marlboro had run a 13-play opening drive, but couldn’t convert on fourth-and-11 from the Fitchburg 26.
The Red Raiders then ran off a similar 12-play drive, with Brooks (11 of 17) finding wide receiver Ozzy Guy on four straight pass plays. The Raiders would get down to the Panther 7, running two plays per set of downs until getting inside the 10.
On the next drive, the Panthers ran four plays before Webber’s fumble found Dylan Araujo pouncing on it.
Fitchburg would end up taking advantage of a solid mismatch, and would jump out to a 14-0 lead.
“Credit to our offensive coaches,” DiGeronimo said. “We just found different read on the field we thought we could exploit, and our kids executed.”
After Araujo claimed the fumble recovery early in the second quarter, the Raiders only needed one play to go up, 7-0: Luis Aldarando took Brooks’ handoff at the Marlboro 15 and swept the left-hand side of the line.
And thanks to Ozzy Guy flashing back to block, Aldarando got free and spun away from a tackler to get into the end zone.
Saavedra’s kick was good.
And while Fitchburg would onside kick on the ensuing kickoff thanks to a 15-yard penalty on Marlboro, the Panther defense would end up holding on inside the red zone to turn over on downs.
Marlboro would run 11 plays but ending up punting after Fitchburg utilized a gang sack of Webber slow the drive, and FHS capitalized immediately.
Brooks connected with Devin Deleon on a crossing pattern that went for a 60-yard catch-and-run, getting down to the Marlboro 7.
“It was a simple call,” Brooks explained. “We were doing slants, but because the safety was over the top, moved way to the right and Devin was solo on a deep cover three, we just hit the post over the top.”
″(Brooks) played great. That’s senior leadership,” DiGeronimo said. “He’s doing what we’re asking him to do, and he doesn’t have to win the game.
“They have good chemistry, along with the other kids.”
Anthony Oquendo then took the handoff and slipped through the right by the guard to get into the end zone, putting FHS up 14-0 after Saavedra’s point-after.
Marlboro punched in a Vigeant TD from a yard out with 19 seconds left in the half to cut the deficit in half.